If Ireland was a horse, it’d be a Shetland Pony dominating a herd of Drafts.
Despite being literally a fraction the size of other equestrian nations in land mass and population, the Irish currently have more show jumpers in the world top 50 than any other country in the world.
Seven in total, as of March 1st.
Those are Bertram Allen (20), Denis Lynch (32), Conor Swail (33), Cian O’Connor (34), Darragh Kenny (39), Shane Sweetnam (45) and Billy Twomey (46). (Countryman Richie Moloney sits in 51st.)
Show jumping superpowers Germany, France and the United States have five apiece, in comparison.
Is it something in the Guinness?
“I suppose we’re more at one with the horse maybe in our country,” says Ireland’s interim chef d’equip Michael Blake.
“In our country, we’re born with the horse. We do more things with the horse as opposed to just riding it. As you say in this country, we know what’s ‘under the hood.’ We know our horses better. We’re more rounded. You’ve got really excellent young riders here in the States, we just have a slightly different approach.”
Blake has led Ireland’s underage rider program for the past four years. A key component of his development strategy is an international mentorship program that sends promising talent abroad.
“I started a program a couple of years ago exporting our children to America. I think we might have ten or 12 riders here now in America. We started a bursary system to get them over,” he explains.
“In Wellington, Shane Sweetnam has an Irish rider in his yard. All the boys have an Irish rider in their yard. They are mentoring those riders and developing them for the future because it’s the way forward.”
At the same time as he’s developing the next generation, Blake, who was appointed rider representative for Ireland’s Show Jumping High Performance programme in December, is strategizing with the senior team. Specifically, he’s focused on improving their team efforts.
“We have eight riders in the top 51, that’s not an accident. We need to circle our wagons now and put our individual efforts into better joint efforts and that’s what we intend to do from here on in,” he says.
The plan appears to be falling into place. The Irish captured back-to-back victories in the Nations Cups of Ocala and Wellington in the past three weeks, using six of its highest ranked team members.
In both cases, an Irish rider went on to claim the Grand Prix as well. O’Connor captured the $100,000 City of Ocala Grand Prix CSIO4* in Ocala. Sweetnam and Swail took the top two spots respectively in the $216,000 Grand Prix CSIO4* in Wellington.
“The team spirit is fantastic,” said Sweetnam after the team’s latest victory. “I have to give it to Michael; it is just amazing.”
If Blake has his way, Ireland will capture an ambitious number of titles by year’s end:
“We intend to go to 24 Nations Cups this year,” he says, “and we want to be sitting at the winner’s table quite a bit.”